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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 42d - Iphis and Ianthe

Saturday, January 25, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 142 (previously 42d) - Iphis and Ianthe - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/01/25 - listen here)


One of my first goals when I started researching f/f themes and motifs in history was to get a sense of what images my fictional characters would have of the possibilities for two women who loved each other. So much of our self-identity as queer people comes from comparing ourselves to the social models we have available. Endless mid-20th century “coming out” stories involved women who thought they were the only person who had ever felt that way because they had no models for same-sex love in their communities, in literature, or in popular culture. Faced with the idea of writing endless historical romances that centered around coming-out themes, I wanted to know what the alternatives were. Just how might women in history have been introduced to the idea of same-sex love?

When you look at Western history, one pop culture property that carries the image of love between women across the centuries--albeit in a shifting and problematic form--is the story of Iphis and Ianthe, as first presented in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s likely that the story was not original to Ovid--most of the stories in the Metamorphoses have older roots--but we have only his version as an early source. In brief, Iphis and Ianthe is the story of a girl raised as a boy who falls mutually in love with another girl and who the gods then transform into a boy so they can marry. I’ll get back to the story itself, but first a bit of background on Ovid.

The Context

The poet Ovid--in full, Publius Ovidius Naso, was born in the mid-1st century BCE to an upper-class Roman family. His family wanted him to study law but he preferred to write poetry and his early career involved praise poems with erotic themes. His collection Heroides is a series of letters from famous women (or fictional female characters) to absent lovers, and is the source of the myth of Sappho pining for a male lover Phaon. His Ars Amatoria (the art of love) was a semi-satirical instruction manual on how to woo, please, and keep lovers and was popular in translation down the ages. The emperor Augustus banished Ovid, possibly for political reasons, possibly because Ovid’s work was seen to encourage adultery during an age of concern for the sexual morals of the Roman upper class.

But before that exile, he also completed the 15-volume Metamorphoses: an encyclopedic verse compilation of transformation motifs in Greek and Roman mythology, progressing from the birth of the cosmos to the political triumph of Julius Caesar. Although Ovid re-worked and interpreted existing mythic material in the Metamorphoses, one result of the popularity of his work is that his versions are commonly taken as the definitive ones.

The Metamorphoses was conceived of as a unified work, with themes progressing and connecting the various stories, but this aspect is often lost when the individual myths are read or studied in isolation. For the story of Iphis and Ianthe, this removes some of the essential context for interpreting the sexual themes.

Keep in mind that the unifying theme of the work is “metamorphosis” or “transformation”. Iphis and Ianthe appears at the end of Book 9 (out of 15) of the Metamorphoses generally in the context of transformations relating to love for inappropriate objects. Within the story, Iphis compares her love for another woman to the love of Pasiphaë (the wife of King Minos of Crete) for a bull, which resulted in the birth of the Minotaur. Pasiphaë’s story occurs in an earlier book of the Metamorphoses, but more immediately before Iphis and Ianthe we find how the infant sons of Callirhoe were transformed instantly into adults so they could avenge the death of their father who had been killed while trying to fulfill a greedy desire of Callirhoe for a necklace. (Look, it’s complicated.) Then the story of Byblis who fell in love with her twin brother and after failing to convince him to engage in an incestuous relationship, she was transformed into a spring because of her incessant weeping. So the story of Iphis’s transformation into a man to resolve the problem of her “impossible” love for another woman must be seen as one of a set of stories of non-normative desire. To be fair, the love between Iphis and Ianthe is treated far more sympathetically than these others, and the two are allowed a happy ending of sorts, but the same-sex love is not allowed to stand as such.

The Story

So let’s dig a bit deeper into the story itself, with examples from the translation in Thomas K. Hubbard’s Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, which provides a literal, though not metrical, version of the meaning.

When Iphis’s mother, Telethusa was pregnant, her father, Ligdus said that if the child were a girl then--although he would regret the necessity--the child would have to die because they couldn’t afford to raise a girl child. Telethusa begged him to reconsider but he was adamant. Right before the birth, Telethusa had a dream of the goddess Io (who was associated with the Egyptian goddess Isis) who promises to protect her and the child, no matter what sex it is. When Iphis is born a girl, Telethusa conceals her sex, presenting her to Ligdus as a boy.

The father fulfilled each vow he owed the gods, and gave the child his father’s name, Iphis--named for her grandfather. Her mother was delighted, since the name could work for either sex, no need to be dishonest. ... She wore boys’ clothes and had the kind of face that would be called a beauty, masculine or feminine.

There are two interesting points here: that because the name Iphis could be borne by either a boy or a girl, her identity avoids one type of “deception”. And in common with a number of other gender disguise stories, the ideal of beauty is presented as being androgynous, one that doesn’t require extreme association with either a male or female stereotype. Therefore Iphis can be an idealized figure without being depicted as abnormal, either as a women or as a man.

Ligdus arranged for a betrothal between the child he thought was his son and Ianthe, the daughter of his neighbor. As was not uncommon at the time, the betrothal was at what we would consider the early age of thirteen. This meant the two entered adolescence encouraged to think of each other as romantic partners. Ianthe had:

the richest dowry of beauty, golden-haired, the daughter of Telestes. They were alike in age and loveliness, and from the same teachers they had learned their childhood lessons. So, naturally, love touched their young hearts equally. The wounds they felt were equal, but their confidence at total odds. Ianthe longed for her marriage, the promised wedding torches, and her husband, whom she believed to be a man. Who wouldn’t? Iphis loved and longed, but she despaired of ever having the one she longed for, and this increased her passion.

Now, remember what I said about this story being placed in the context of the consequences of inappropriate desires? For the story to make sense in this context, it must be presented as involving an “impossible” love. That is, a love between two women. There are two ways to look at this. One is the easily falsifiable position that it is psychologically impossible for a woman to desire another woman. Since the very premise of the story is the Iphis and Ianthe fall in love with each other, it doesn’t make sense that this would be the argument. The second interpretation is that “possible love” is being defined as love that can be consummated with penetrative sex. This might make sense, except that in the passage that follows, Iphis compares her situation with the natural world in terms of desire not in terms of consummation.

A girl on fire for a girl. She spoke through her tears, “What end awaits me, victim of this new, bizarre unheard-of spell of Venus? If the gods intend to spare me, then they should have; if they want me ruined, they should at least have sent some normal malady. No cow lusts after a cow, or mare for a mare. The ram inflames the ewes, the doe follows the buck, and so on--birds and every type of animal. No female ever desires another female. I wish that I didn’t exist, or weren’t a girl!

And yet, she desires Ianthe. That is simple fact. It clearly is possible. What Iphis can’t get past is that they can’t perform male-female sex acts. She compares her situation to that of Pasiphaë whose sexual desire for the sacred bull was made possible by the inventor Daedalus creating a cow-costume for her. Look, don’t ask. Greek myths go strange places. But that, Iphis laments, was at least a male-female coupling. Could Daedalus use his ingenuity to change her into a boy? Or to change Ianthe into a boy? This is the first point at which the transgender concept is raised. Iphis now laments that it is the physical impossibility that stands in her way.

No guardian forbids you the caress you crave, no over-anxious husband, severe patriarch, not even the girl--she’s yours for just the asking--and yet you can’t possess her, can’t get lucky, not for all the world, for all that gods and men can do. ... What I want, my father wants, so does my future father-in-law, so does my bride-to-be. Nature alone says no, and her voice drowns out all the rest, and she alone subverts me. The day I’ve longed for, my wedding day draws near, and soon Ianthe will be mine, but not belong to me. I’ll die of thirst with water all around.

What we have here is a conflict between an in-story and out-story explanation. Within the story, Iphis simply has a failure of imagination as to what two women can do together. She’s been brainwashed into thinking that only pseudo-heterosexual sex counts. But from the authorial point of view, something more insidious is going on. Because Ovid is quite aware of the possibilities for sex between women. Bawdy humor about women’s same-sex escapades was commonplace in Imperial Rome. Ovid’s own Heroides included reference to Sappho’s sexual history with women, though he depicts her as considering that past shameful now that she has Phaon the ferry-man to desire. For Ovid, the problem isn’t imagining what two women might get up to in bed, it’s considering that compatible with Iphis as a positive heroic figure.

One of the archetypes in classical Roman understanding of sexuality was of the tribade--the “masculine” woman who takes an active role in sex. This didn’t necessarily involve penetration, but could simply involve taking the lead and the upper position in rubbing vulvas together, the activity to which the tribade gave her name. The male-dominated records that have come down to us are deeply rooted in a hierarchical, asymmetric understanding of sexual activity. There must be an active and a passive partner, and those roles were gendered. But women were expected by nature to take the passive role in sex, so a woman who accepted the sexual attentions of another women was not necessarily considered abnormal in the same way that the active partner was. The woman in the active role was considered abnormal, not because the object of her desire was a woman, but because she was usurping the role of a man.

Thus, for Iphis to act on her desire--to take the role of a tribade--moves her out of the category of “normal” admirable women and into the category of “abnormal” sexually-aggressive women. In general, Ovid metes out punishments to female sexual aggressors in the Metamorphoses. In this context, Iphis's failure or refusal to act on her desire appears to be what makes her a virtuous character. Her desire for a woman is tragic, but not directly condemned, only because she doesn’t claim the male prerogative of acting on it.

So what is she to do? The wedding day is approaching. Iphis really really wants to marry the woman she loves, but doesn’t see how it’s going to work out. And what about Ianthe? Well, Ianthe believes herself to be betrothed to the man that she loves and feels no conflict about it. Iphis’s mother, Telethusa, is the only other person who knows the shit is about to hit the fan. But Io promised her that everything would be ok, right? So she goes to the temple and prays to the goddess, this time under the name of Isis, and demands:

“[I did] all that you commanded. My daughter is alive now, and I have not been punished. We have you to thank. The gift of your advice. Take pity on us both. Help us!”

The goddess gives her a sign that all will be well and Telethusa leaves the temple with Iphis:

Whose stride is longer now, her complexion is less delicate, her expression sharper, her strength has increased, her tousled hair is shorter, and she has more stamina than usual for a female. The reason, Iphis, is that until this very moment you were a female, and now you’re a boy.

Voila! Everything’s ok. Now the marriage is celebrated.

For a relatively short and tidy story, it has a lot of ambiguity and complexity. In contrast to the Roman stereotype of the tribade as a “masculine” woman, Iphis and Ianthe are described in the language of similarity: equal in age, in beauty, in education, and in the love they feel for each other. Iphis is described as having a non-gender-specific beauty. And as we see in the metamorphosis, both Iphis’s physical traits and her behavioral ones are changed from what they were before. The description is not unproblematically a case of simply aligning the physiological self to the inner gender identity.

Despite the cross-gender presentation motif, Iphis and Ianthe fit more with the model that Valerie Traub calls “femme-femme love” in which similarity is seen as the driving force behind women’s love for each other. In their pre-metamorphosis state, there is no active-passive contrast, no distinction of masculine and feminine presentation except in the most superficial terms.

Iphis is understood socially to be a boy, but simply by parental fiat--not based on appearance or personality or physical prowess or even based on a gendered name. We see this in the post-transformation description. Now her stride is longer, now her complexion is less delicate, now she is stronger and has more stamina, and--curiously--now her hair is shorter. Implying that she had long feminine hair before the transformation and yet this was not taken by anyone as a gendered attribute. In fact, the pre-transformation Iphis provides conflicting arguments about gender essentialism. Nothing about the pre-transformation Iphis was read as being feminine, otherwise the deception couldn’t have been successful. Contrarily, the proof of the sexual transformation is presented as being a shift in gendered attributes.

Iphis is raised as a boy due to her mother’s choice, not her own. And in her internal conflict over the marriage, her anxiety is over identifying as a girl and believing that this makes her love for Ianthe unnatural. If Iphis identified as a boy--leaving aside the question of whether this is a concept that Ovid could have envisioned--that problem wouldn’t exist. In the moment when Iphis raises the possibility of sexual metamorphosis as a solution, she doesn’t fixate specifically on transforming her, but only that one of them must change.

Let Daedalus himself come flying back to Crete on wings of wax, what will he do for me, with all his brains and skill? Turn me into a boy? Or will he change you, Ianthe?

This open-ended option is emphasized even more strongly in a Renaissance adaptation of the tale, which leaves the question entirely unsettled as to which of the girls has been changed after the curtain closes. The metamorphosis is not to align internal gender and external sexual identities, even despite the prior gender-disguise motif.

And yet if the ways in which Iphis is described makes it difficult to read the story whole-heartedly as a transgender one, there are also significant problems in reading the story whole-heartedly as a lesbian one. Despite the obvious evidence that Iphis is in love with Ianthe, both her internal dialogue and the author’s framing represent love between women as impossible. Or at least untenable. Metamorphosis is imposed on them to dodge the possibility of an egalitarian, mutual, non-phallocentric love between two women. Not because it was impossible, but because it was unacceptable. One cannot look at the conclusion to Iphis and Ianthe and say, “Here is a female couple with a happily ever after ending.” Because they are only allowed to have that happy ending once they are a heterosexual couple.

This cultural imposition of heterosexuality is an underlayer for the entire Western history of “female husbands.” We cannot with certainty interpret every “female husband” as a lesbian because the shape of their lives is identical to what we’d expect for a heterosexual trans man. And yet we cannot with certainty interpret every “female husband” as a trans man because we see, time and again with cyclic regularity, the rise of cultural scripts that define women who love women as “actually being men.” This is a conflict that continues to play out today, even in the face of the deciding principle that your identity is what you understand it to be. History is less susceptible of that subjective truth whether analyzing the lives and identities of actual persons, or even more so when interpreting fictional characters in the past where the author’s motives and limitations play as much of a part as the lives they present on the page.

One curious side-note to the sexual-metamorphosis motif is that such a transformation--though only from female to male--was considered to be a known phenomenon in classical Roman times and on through the middle ages. Such transformations are described in histories, travelers’ tales, and other anecdotes. The philosopher Pliny claimed that some animals could change sex, even repeatedly.

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Transmission and Translation

I mentioned a Renaissance adaptation, but let’s step back and look at the full history of how the tale of Iphis and Ianthe was transmitted across the ages. We have no copies of the work from anywhere near its time of composition at the very beginning of the 1st century CE. In general, all texts of this era come down to us only because they were copied and re-copied continually over the ages. We have a few fragmentary parts of the Metamorphoses dating to the 9th and 10th centuries, and then more complete versions from copies made in the 11th century and later, but it was an extremely popular text by the middle ages, with hundreds of copies in circulation.

Gower’s Confessio Amantis (1390)

In the middle ages, there were French adaptations of the Metamorphoses that I’ll discuss a bit later. Versions of the stories began appearing in Middle English in the later 14th century. Geoffrey Chaucer borrowed some of them to use in his Canterbury Tales, though Iphis and Ianthe was not one of those.

John Gower included a number of older romantic tales in his work Confessio Amantis “a lover’s confession,” written around 1390. It has a framing story in which an aging lover gives his confession to the chaplain of Venus, the goddess of love--an interesting mix of Christian and pagan motifs! The tales in the confession are organized in groups by the seven mortal sins, with Iphis and Ianthe placed under “sloth”--not as an example of sloth, but as an example of what the hard-working lover can achieve.

Gower’s interpretation is ambivalent about sex between women rather than being entirely negative. He alludes (possibly) to sexual activity between the two young women, in contrast to other versions, which treat such a thing as impossible. Gower’s version is relatively short, so I’ll include it in its entirety. I’ve edited some of the vocabulary to make it understandable to modern ears, but the original version is in the transcript.

[The Original Text]

The king Ligdus upon a strif
Spak unto Thelacuse his wif,
Which thanne was with childe grete;
He swor it scholde noght be lete [i.e., should not be prevented]
That if sche have a dowhter bore
That it ne scholde be forlore [i.e., it nothing should be but destroyed]
And slain, wherof sche sory was.
So it befell upon this cas,
Whan sche delivered scholde be,
Isis be nyhte in priveté,
Which of childinge is the goddesse,  [child-bearing]
Cam for to helpe in that destresse,
Til that this lady was al smal,
And hadde a dowhter forthwithal;
Which the goddesse in alle weie
Bad kepe, and that thei scholden seie [bade keep]
It were a sone: and thus Iphis
Thei namede him, and upon this 
The fader was mad so to wene. [ween = understand]
And thus in chambre with the qweene
This Iphis was forthdrawe tho, [taken away then]
And clothed and arraied so
Riht as a kinges sone scholde.
Til after, as fortune it wolde,
Whan it was of a ten yer age,
Him was betake in mariage [to him was delivered in marriage]
A duckes dowhter for to wedde, [duke’s]
Which Iante hihte, and ofte abedde [in bed]
These children leien, sche and sche,
Which of on age bothe be.
So that withinne time of yeeres,
Togedre as thei ben pleiefieres, [playmates, playfellows]
Liggende abedde upon a nyht,
Nature, which doth every wiht
Upon hire lawe for to muse,
Constreigneth hem, so that thei use
Thing which to hem was al unknowe;
Wherof Cupide thilke throwe
Tok pité for the grete love,
And let do sette kinde above, [and caused [love] to be set above nature]
So that hir lawe mai ben used,
And thei upon here lust excused.
For love hateth nothing more
Than thing which stant agein the lore [teaching]
Of that nature in kinde hath sett. [what nature, naturally has set]
Forthi Cupide hath so besett
His grace upon this aventure,
That he acordant to nature,
Whan that he syh the time best,
That ech of hem hath other kest, [kissed]
Transformeth Iphe into a man,
Wherof the kinde love he wan [whereof the natural love he ?felt?]
Of lusti yonge Iante his wif;
And tho thei ladde a merie lif, [led a merry life]
Which was to kinde non offence. [to nature]

[The Confessor]

   And thus to take an evidence,
It semeth love is welwillende [well-willing, benevolent]
To hem that ben continuende
With besy herte to poursuie
Thing which that is to love due.
Wherof, my sone, in this matiere
Thou miht ensample taken hiere,
That with thi grete besinesse [busy-ness, diligence]
Thou mihte atteigne the richesse
Of love, if that ther be no Slowthe."

[Made somewhat more readable by me]

The king Ligdus upon a strife
Spoke unto Thelacuse his wife,
Which then was with child great;
He swore it should not be let
That if she have a daughter born
That it should be forlorn
And slain, whereof she sorry was.
So it befell upon this cause,
When she deliveréd should be,
Isis be nigh in privacy,
Which of child-bearing is the goddess,
Came for to help in that distress,
Til that this lady was all small,
And had a daughter forth-withall;
Which the goddess in all way
Bade her keep, and that they should say
It were a son: and thus Iphis
They naméd him, and upon this 
The father was made to believe
And thus in chamber with the queen
This Iphis was taken though,
And clothéd and arrayéd so
Right as a king’s son should.
Til after, as fortune it would,
When it was of a ten year age,
Him was betake in marriage
A duke’s daughter for to wed,
Which Iante hight, and oft a-bed
These children lie, she and she,
Which of one age both be.
So that within time of years,
Together as they be play-fellows,
Lying a-bed upon a night,
Nature, which causes every wight
Upon her law for to muse,
Constrains them, so that they use
A thing which to them was all unknown;
Whereof Cupid, arrows thrown
Took pity for their great love,
And set that over nature above,
So that nature’s law be used,
And they upon their lust excused.
For love hates nothing more
Than a thing which stands against the lore
Of what nature naturally has set.
For Cupid has so be-set
His grace upon this adventure,
That he according to nature,
When that he sees the time best,
That each of them hath the other kissed,
Transforms Iphis into a man,
Whereof the type of love he can
Of lusty young Iante his wife;
And then they led a merry life,
Which was to nature no offence.

[The Confessor]

And thus to take an evidence,
It seems love is well-willing
To them that be continuing
With busy heart to pursue
A thing which that is to love due.
Whereof, my son, in this matter
Thou might ensample taken here,
That with thy great business
Thou might attain the riches
Of love, if that there be no Sloth."

It isn’t entirely clear what the “thing” is that Iphis and Ianthe use in bed together--“a thing which to them was all unknown”--whether this is an oblique reference to using the genitals in a way that was against nature, or whether an object is meant. But this version of the story at least implies the possibility of sexual activity--and the certainty of a kiss--between the women prior to the metamorphosis. In Gower’s version it’s implied that the love between the two carries such weight that Cupid rewards them with the ability to “lead a merry life” together. Whereas Ovid’s original frames the metamorphosis as an escape from the social consequences of having Iphis’s female state discovered. Cupid is, perhaps, a better author of this ending than the less familiar Isis would have been.

Caxton’s The Booke of Ovyde Named Methamorphose (1480)

But the pagan content of the story must have made some uneasy, for by the early 14th century, a French adaptation was composed known as Ovid Moralisée or “Ovid, Moralized,” which adapted the stories to create Christian moral lessons, with Ovid converted into a sort of proto-Christian philosopher. Many of the stories were drastically changed in the process.

William Caxton, of printing press fame, produced a translation of the French Ovid Moralisée in 1480. By the time we get to Caxton’s version, a number of details of the story have changed. The father, Ligdus, is no longer too poor to afford a daughter, instead he’s rich and merely murderously misogynistic, claiming, A woman is withoute strength & valoyr. By women many ther be put to gret shame & sorrow. When Telethusa appeals to the goddess Isis, the goddess doesn’t simply assure her all will be well, but specifically instructs Telethusa to deceive her husband. Deceit is much more to the forefront in this version, because Caxton’s text claims that the name Iphis could only be a male name, where Ovid had claimed it as non-gender-specific and thus as appropriate for a daughter as a son.

This doughter was named Yphis after the name of her grantfader and therby he wende the more certaynly that it hade be a son. The moder enioyed her & moch it plesed her that she was so named, for suche a name apperteyneth to a man & not to a woman, and so myght by hys name he be apperceyued withoute sayenge the trouth.

Thus Caxton introduces the common trope of transgender status as inherently deceptive. Also in contrast to Ovid’s version, Caxton’s language attributes masculinity to Iphis before the physical transformation. Ovid emphasizes a “similarity” model of attractiveness and attraction, describing characteristics that are not implied to be inherently gendered. Caxton also emphasizes the similarity motif, describing Iphis as having “such a vysage that who sawe her myght indefferently saye ‘it is a sone or a doughter’.”

But where Ovid uses feminine pronouns for Iphis (until the metamorphosis), Caxton, similarly to other medieval texts, alternates gendered reference by context, not only before the metamorphosis but even before Ianthe is introduced. myght by hys name he be aperceyued ... Yphis had th’abyte of a man chylde whych becam hym moche wel. And also she had such a vysage that who sawe her...

That is, Caxton’s Iphis is male in some essential way, just not quite male enough to marry a woman. This inherent masculinity is implied to be the basis for Iphis’s desire for Ianthe, but is not sufficient to enable consummation. Iphis laments that she is not worthy of Ianthe’s love.

she was moch descomforted, which supposed neuer to haue mow enioye her, ne acowple to her. ... A shep female desyreth the masle & engendre togeder, and a kowe assembleth her to a bulle. Euery femele by ryght requyreth his masle. Ther is no femele that desireth to acowple her to another femele. And I, a femele, requyre as masle agaynst raison. I had leuer not to be born than to haue so folisshe hope.

Like in Ovid, after recalling how the inventor Daedalus created a device to enable Pasiphaë’s foolish love for the bull, Iphis raises the idea of a sex change either for her or for Ianthe, but only to deny its possibility.

for I may not become a masle, ne she nether that abydeth for me.

Ovid’s text is somewhat coy in identifying exactly what aspect of marriage Iphis is incapable of fulfilling, but Caxton is somewhat more direct.

For I may goo, come, speke, embrace & kysse her as my love whan it pleseth me, and ther is nothynge that may destrowble me. ...[the goddes] gyue to me a grete parte of my desyre. ... But what shal avaylle me this joye? In the myddes of the water we shal deye for thurst, for I may not doo with her as a man ought to do with his wyf.

Once more, Caxton’s text attributes masculine identity to Iphis. To desire a woman is to desire “as a male.”

Iphis’s mother delays the wedding as long as possible but then takes her to the temple of Isis to throw themselves on the goddess’s mercy. The goddess appears in a vision, the temple shakes as a portent (or maybe just an earthquake, this is Crete after all), and Iphis emerges from the temple:

a greter paas than she was wonte to doo and had lasse white in her vysage than she had before. And her heere were shorter & harder and she was more vygorous & stronger than she had ben to fore, ne than woman myght be by nature. She had changed al her femenyne nature in to masculyne.

But here Caxton’s anticipatory gender assignment is missing. At the very point when Iphis has been physically transformed into a male, the language is entirely feminine. What is the moral? Well, in the moralized Ovid, we aren’t left wondering on that point, for Caxton lays it out in an afterword, suggesting that the story might have been inspired by a cross-dressing woman who married another woman. But in contrast to the rather innocent romantic angst of Ovid’s Iphis, the “moralized Iphis” is depicted as being driven by lechery, aided by an “old and evil bawd” who helped her obtain an artificial penis to deceive her wife.

It may wel be that in ancyent tyme was a woman that ware the habyte of a man whych semed a man. And they that saw her had supposed wel that she so had be. And the moder made the peple also to byleue it. And it myght hapen that som fair mayde sawe her, fair, gente & plaisant in th’abyte of a man, & byleued that she was a man & desired to haue her in maryage. And she, whych was folyssh & nyce, fyanced & espoused her, how wel she hade not th’ynstruments of nature, but, ayenst the right of her, desyred to complaire her lecherye in her, how be it that she had such empesshement as afore is sayd. The whych wyf & very love knewe it not. So moche complayned she that the folysshe loue tempted her that by th’arte & crafte of an old & euyl bawde achievyd her fowl desyre by a membre apostate & deceyued this wif, whiche by lawe of mariage ought not to haue her. And whan she apperceyuyd it, she hydd it no, but shewd & told it, wherof she had euer aftir all her lyf shame & vylonye & was sore blamed, and that other fledd & absented her fro the contrey. Now ther be none that haue to doo with suche werke, for it is overmoch vylanous and domageable.

The whole framing is converted into excessive lust, deception, and dildos. In contrast to Ovid’s acceptance--whether genuine or not--of physical transformation and a heterosexual resolution to the romance, the moralized version does not admit of the possibility of genuine metamorphosis and focuses on the mechanisms of sexual activity rather than the motivations of erotic love. The French versified version of the moralized Ovid places this obsession with dildos and deceit within the story of Iphis itself, rather than being offered as an ex post facto suggestion of the story’s origins. Note that some scholars interpret this final section as depicting the fate of Iphis and Ianthe themselves, rather than a parallel story.

Renaissance Translations

In the mid 16th century, Arthur Golding returned to the original Latin text and produced a verse translation into English that was the version known by influential poets such as Shakespeare and Spenser. There is a rumor that Shakespeare produced a play based on Iphis and Ianthe--which would certainly fit in with his fondness for gender-disguise plays--but this rumor is discounted by most historians.

In contrast to Gower’s abbreviated version, Golding’s retains all the digressions and poetic excursions of Ovid’s original, so it’s a bit long to include in full. I’ve excerpted the portion in which Iphis is discovering and lamenting her love, but the full version is included in the transcript.

[The bolded text is included in the podcast.]

Iphis and Ianthe from Book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphosis translated by Arthur Golding (1567)

More neerer home by Iphys meanes transformed late before.
For in the shyre of
 Phestos hard by Gnossus dwelt of yore
A yeoman of the meaner sort that
 Lyctus had to name.
His stocke was simple, and his welth according to the same.
Howbee't his lyfe so upryght was, as no man could it blame.
He came unto his wyfe then big and ready downe to lye,
And sayd: Two things I wish thee. T'one, that when thou out shalt crye,
Thou mayst dispatch with little payne: the other that thou have
A Boay. For Gyrles to bring them up a greater cost doo crave.
And I have no abilitie. And therefore if thou bring
A wench (it goes ageinst my heart to thinke uppon the thing)
Although ageinst my will, I charge it streyght destroyed bee.
The bond of nature needes must beare in this behalf with mee
This sed, both wept exceedingly, as well the husband who
Did give commaundement, as the wyfe that was commaunded too.
 Telethusa earnestly at Lyct her husband lay,
(Although in vayne) to have good hope, and of himselfe more stay.
But he was full determined. Within a whyle, the day
Approched that the frute was rype, and shee did looke to lay
Her belly every mynute: when at midnyght in her rest
Stood by her (or did seeme to stand) the Goddesse
 Isis, drest
And trayned with the solemne pomp of all her rytes. Two hornes
Uppon her forehead lyke the moone, with eares of rypened cornes
Stood glistring as the burnisht gold. Moreover shee did weare
A rich and stately diademe. Attendant on her were
The barking dog Anubis, and the saint of Bubast, and
The pydecote Apis, and the God that gives to understand
By fingar holden to his lippes that men should silence keepe,
And Lydian wormes whose stinging dooth enforce continuall sleepe,
And thou, Osyris, whom the folk of Aegypt ever seeke,
And never can have sought inough, and Rittlerattles eke.
Then even as though that Telethuse had fully beene awake,
And seene theis things with open eyes, thus Isis to her spake:
My servant Telethusa, cease this care, and breake the charge
Of Lyct. And when Lucina shall have let thy frute at large,
Bring up the same what ere it bee. I am a Goddesse who
Delyghts in helping folke at neede. I hither come to doo
Thee good. Thou shalt not have a cause hereafter to complayne
Of serving of a Goddesse that is thanklesse for thy payne.
When Isis had this comfort given, shee went her way agayne.
A joyfull wyght rose Telethuse, and lifting to the sky
Her hardened hands, did pray hir dreame myght woorke effectually.
Her throwes increast, and forth alone anon the burthen came,
A wench was borne to Lyctus who knew nothing of the same.
The mother making him beleeve it was a boay, did bring
It up, and none but shee and nurce were privie to the thing.
The father thanking God did give the chyld the Graundsyres name,
The which was Iphys. Joyfull was the moother of the same,
Bycause the name did serve alike to man and woman bothe,
And so the lye through godly guile forth unperceyved gothe.
The garments of it were a boayes. The face of it was such
As eyther in a boay or gyrle of beawtie uttered much.

When Iphys was of thirteene yeeres, her father did insure
The browne Ianthee unto her, a wench of looke demure,
Commended for her favor and her person more than all
The Maydes of Phestos: Telest, men her fathers name did call.
He dwelt in Dyctis. They were bothe of age and favor leeke,
And under both one schoolemayster they did for nurture seeke.
And hereupon the hartes of both, the dart of Love did streeke,

And wounded both of them aleeke. But unlike was theyr hope.
Both longed for the wedding day togither for to cope.
For whom Ianthee thinkes to bee a man, shee hopes to see
Her husband. Iphys loves whereof shee thinkes shee may not bee
Partaker, and the selfesame thing augmenteth still her flame.
Herself a Mayden with a Mayd (ryght straunge) in love became.
Shee scarce could stay her teares. What end remaynes for mee (quoth shee)
How straunge a love? how uncoth? how prodigious reygnes in mee?
If that the Gods did favor mee, they should destroy mee quyght.
Of if they would not mee destroy, at least wyse yit they myght
Have given mee such a maladie as myght with nature stond,
Or nature were acquainted with. A Cow is never fond
Uppon a Cow, nor Mare on Mare. The Ram delyghts the Eawe,
The Stag the Hynde, the Cocke the Hen. But never men could shew,
That female yit was tane in love with female kynd. O would
To God I never had beene borne. Yit least that Candy should
Not bring foorth all that monstruous were, the daughter of the Sonne
Did love a Bull. Howbee't there was a Male to dote uppon.
My love is furiouser than hers, if truthe confessed bee.
For shee was fond of such a lust as myght bee compast. Shee
Was served by a Bull beguyld by Art in Cow of tree.
And one there was for her with whom advowtrie to commit.
If all the conning in the worlde and slyghts of suttle wit
Were heere, or if that Daedalus himselfe with uncowth wing
Of Wax should hither fly againe, what comfort should he bring?
Could he with all his conning crafts now make a boay of mee?
Or could he, O Ianthee, chaunge the native shape of thee?
Nay rather, Iphys, settle thou thy mynd and call thy witts
Abowt thee: shake thou off theis flames that foolishly by fitts
Without all reason reigne. Thou seest what Nature hathe thee made
(Onlesse thow wilt deceyve thy selfe.) So farre foorth wysely wade,
As ryght and reason may support, and love as women ought.
Hope is the thing that breedes desyre, hope feedes the amorous thought.
This hope thy sex denieth thee. Not watching doth restreyne
Thee from embracing of the thing wherof thou art so fayne.
Nor yit the Husbands jealowsie, nor rowghnesse of her Syre,
Nor yit the coynesse of the Wench dooth hinder thy desyre.

And yit thou canst not her enjoy. No, though that God and man
Should labor to their uttermost and doo the best they can
In thy behalfe, they could not make a happy wyght of thee.
I cannot wish the thing but that I have it. Frank and free
The Goddes have given mee what they could. As I will, so will bee
That must become my fathrinlaw. So willes my father, too.
But nature stronger than them all consenteth not thereto.
This hindreth mee, and nothing else. Behold the blisfull tyme,
The day of Mariage is at hand. Ianthee shal bee myne,
And yit I shall not her enjoy. Amid the water wee
Shall thirst. O Juno, president of mariage, why with thee
Comes Hymen to this wedding where no brydegroome you shall see,
But bothe are Brydes that must that day togither coupled bee?

This spoken, shee did hold hir peace. And now the tother mayd
Did burne as hote in love as shee. And earnestly shee prayd
The brydale day myght come with speede. The thing for which shee longd
Dame Telethusa fearing sore, from day to day prolongd
The tyme, oft feyning siknesse, oft pretending shee had seene
Ill tokens of successe. At length all shifts consumed beene.
The wedding day so oft delayd was now at hand. The day
Before it, taking from her head the kercheef quyght away,
And from her daughters head likewyse, with scattred heare she layd
Her handes upon the Altar, and with humble voyce thus prayd:
O Isis, who doost haunt the towne of Paretonie, and
The feeldes by Maraeotis lake, and Pharos which dooth stand
By Alexandria, and the Nyle divided into seven
Great channels, comfort thou my feare, and send mee help from heaven,
Thyself, O Goddesse, even thyself, and theis thy relikes I
Did once behold and knew them all: as well thy company
As eke thy sounding rattles, and thy cressets burning by,
And myndfully I marked what commaundement thou didst give.
That I escape unpunished, that this same wench dooth live,
Thy counsell and thy hest it is. Have mercy now on twayne,
And help us. With that word the teares ran downe her cheekes amayne.
The Goddesse seemed for to move her Altar: and in deede
She moved it. The temple doores did tremble like a reede.
And homes in likenesse to the Moone about the Church did shyne.
And Rattles made a raughtish noyse. At this same luckie signe,
Although not wholy carelesse, yit ryght glad shee went away.
And Iphys followed after her with larger pace than ay
Shee was accustomd. And her face continued not so whyght.
Her strength encreased, and her looke more sharper was to syght.
Her heare grew shorter, and shee had a much more lively spryght,
Than when shee was a wench. For thou, O 
Iphys, who ryght now
A modther wert, art now a boay. With offrings both of yow
To Church retyre, and there rejoyce with fayth unfearfull. They
With offrings went to Church ageine, and there theyr vowes did pay.
They also set a table up, which this breef meeter had:
The vowes that Iphys vowd a wench he hath performd a Lad.
Next morrow over all the world did shine with lightsome flame,
 Iuno, and Dame Venus, and Sir Hymen joyntly came
 Iphys mariage, who as then transformed to a boay
Did take Ianthee to his wyfe, and so her love enjoy.

In the 1620s, Henry Bellamy wrote a play “Iphis and Ianthe” in Latin, diverging from Ovid’s plot in places, largely by introducing several new characters including a suitor competing for Ianthe’s affections. Like Ovid, Bellamy suggests that Iphis and Ianthe are similar enough to be twins--similar enough that Ianthe’s other suitor is expected to be able to transfer his love to Iphis on being told her true sex. Iphis’s virtues are depicted in female-coded terms and the attraction of like to like is presented as natural and praiseworthy.

Other verse translations appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries, but there’s no need to elaborate on them except to note that the continued popularity of the work meant that the component stories were kept current in popular culture.

Other Adaptations

That currency appears in passing allusions and quotations in other works. When the (presumably female) poet of the 1586 Maitland manuscript poem expresses her desire for her female beloved, comparing the two of them to passionate pairs of same-sex friends and lovers throughout history, she concludes by suggesting that Jove (well-known for bodily transformations) by “metamorphosing our shape--my sex into his will convert” such that the poet might marry her beloved. Both the bodily transformation to enable marriage and the use of the word “metamorphose” call to mind the tale of Iphis.

More solidly, the story of Iphis and Ianthe was used as a basis for other popular works. This includes the medieval romance of Yde and Olive, which--among other motifs--borrows the impending marriage between a cross-dressed woman and a female-presenting one as the context for anxiety about the possibility of love--and sex--between women. Yde chooses her masculine disguise rather than having it imposed on her from birth, but the purpose is similarly safety from a threatening father. It isn’t clear that Yde falls in love with Olive--we aren’t given the same window into her interior emotional life. But unlike Ianthe, Olive renews her expressions of love and faithfulness after learning Yde’s femaleness in their marriage bed. Like Iphis, Yde is magically transformed into a man to save her life when her sex is about to be revealed to the world.

On a lighter note, John Lyly’s romantic comedy Galathea, sets up a mirror to the Iphis character and has both heroines pressured into cross-dressing for reasons to do with their fathers (though in this case with the father’s knowledge). While in disguise, each falls in love with the other, each initially thinking that her love is safely heterosexual (despite the superficial appearance of male-male love), but both quickly suspecting the other’s disguise. Yet their love for each other survives this realization.

Gallathea proclaims, “I will never love any but Phyllida, her love is engraved in my heart, with her eyes.

Which Phyllida echoes with, “Nor I any but Gallathea, whose faith is imprinted in my thoughts by her words.”

The god Neptune mocks them and asks Venus, goddess of love what she thinks of such a foolish choice.

Venus responds, “I like well and allow it, they shall both be possessed of their wishes, for never shall it be said that Nature or Fortune shall overthrow love, and faith. Is your love unspotted, begun with truth, continued with constancy, and not to be altered until death?”

The two young women reply in the affirmative and Venus promises, “Then shall it be seen, that I can turn one of them to be a man, and that I will. What is to love or the Mistress of love unpossible? Was it not Venus that did the like to Iphis and Ianthe; how say ye, are ye agreed, one to bee a boy presently?”

Their fathers squabble a while over which of their daughters must be turned to a boy until Venus puts her foot down. “Then let us depart, neither of them shall know whose lot it shall be till they come to the Church door. One shall be, doth it suffice?”

As alluded to more faintly in Ovid’s text, Gallathea undermines a purely transgender reading of the story by emphasizing the arbitrary nature of the choice. One of the lovers is to be transformed to a man, not because of an underlying male identity, but in order to dodge a resolution in which two women are allowed a romantic and sexual union. But the obligatory transformation in both stories undermines a purely lesbian reading as well.

Iphis’s lament includes the claim that she was, “Victim of [a] new, bizarre, unheard-of spell of Venus.” That “No female ever desires another female.” And yet the continuing popularity of Ovid’s Metamorphoses over the last two millennia allowed Iphis to be a beacon to women who might otherwise have felt similarly. Iphis provided literary proof that women could desire other women. That they did. Iphis and Ianthe provided a context for women who loved women to recognize what they felt and to place it in a  long--if not always happy--tradition. To know that they weren’t alone in feeling what they did. When I wanted to give my characters in Daughter of Mystery a wake-up call to contemplate their dawning love, I invented an operatic performance of Iphis and Ianthe for them to watch together. I couldn’t find any actual operatic versions of the story in the 19th century, but it’s quite in keeping with the long tradition of reworking the story. And maybe it should exist.

Show Notes

Tracing same-sex and transgender themes in Ovid’s Classical Roman tale of forbidden love across the ages.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: